Every year, the UK goes a little mad as pop stars compete to see who will get the completely ceremonial honor of having the #1 song in the country on Christmas. Here’s a look at this cultural phenomenon, which has no real comparison in the U.S.
In the 2003 Christmas-set romantic comedy Love, Actually, aging pop star Billy Mack (Bill Nighy) tries to revive his career by trying to get a Christmas #1 with a song called “Christmas is All Around,” a holiday-themed remake of the Troggs’ hit “Love is All Around.” Mack calls it a “festering turd of a record.” It’s a satirical look at the English pop cultural phenomenon of the music industry – and music buyers – guessing what song will be #1 on Christmas Day.
The question of “who will be #1 on Christmas” has fascinated England since 1973. That year, two popular glam rock bands both released Christmas singles: Slade, with “Merry Xmas Everybody,” and Wizzard, with “I Wish It Could Be Christmas Everyday.” The media concocted a rivalry and prognosticated which song would top the charts, if either, by Christmas. The winner: Slade.
Since then, the buildup to #1 on Christmas is a big deal. Musicians record songs specifically to top the charts at Christmas—more often that not the Christmas #1 is a sentimental song, a Christmas song, a remake, or a novelty song. (In Love, Actually, the sentimental, Christmas-themed remake “Christmas is All Around” does in fact hit #1.)
St. Winifred’s School Choir, “There’s No One Quite Like Grandma.” This group of elementary school-age singers, accompanied by their teacher on guitar, had a string of unlikely hits in late 1979, culminating in the Christmas #1 of 1980 with a sweet song about how great grandmas are.
Band Aid, “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” Bob Geldof recruited more than 20 rock stars (George Michael, Bono, Phil Collins) to record a charity single to raise money for African famine relief. It sold 3.5 million copies, the second-best-selling single ever in England. It went to #1 in 1984; remakes topped the Christmas chart in 1989 and 2004.
Bob the Builder, “Can We Fix It?” A dance remix of the theme song to the stop-motion children’s TV show went to #1 in 2000.
Winners of The X Factor. In recent years, the first single from the winner of England’s version of TV talent show The X Factor has been released to much fanfare just in time for it to top the charts at Christmas. An X Factor winner had the Christmas #1 in 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, and 2010. (Why not 2009? Read on.)
Rage Against the Machine, “Killing in the Name.” The Marxist-leaning American hard rock band had the Christmas #1 in 2009 with a song about police brutality it had recorded 17 years earlier. How? A DJ started a campaign on Facebook, urging people to buy the song to prevent another song from The X Factor from getting the top spot.